An Interview with Head Chef Nicholas Cha L'Ortolan
Nick has been running the L'Ortolan kitchen since January 2012 when he took over from former Head Chef Elliott Lidstone. Nick is very familiar with L'Ortolan as he has worked with Alan and in the kitchen since 2010, Nick's former postings include almost 10 years at the award-winning Mallory Court.
We stole 10 minutes of his time last week to find out more about the Chef who keeps the well oiled Michelin starred kitchen running so smoothly.
How did you get to where you are now?
By working far too many hours and enjoying what I do. That's kitchens; you either love them or you hate them!
If you weren't a chef, what career would you have chosen?
I'd be an artist with a big studio. I studied fine art, sculpture, and print making for 5 years and then ended up in a kitchen somehow.
Who has been your greatest inspiration in your career?
Apart from Alan Murchison, it would be Simon Haigh from Mallory Court, he was also Al's first boss. I spent 8 years working with him and learnt a lot about food and how it should be. He taught me the classics.
What is your favourite food or cuisine?
Yes, really Nandos or a Chinese, it's comfort food. When you spend all week creating fine food, on a Sunday night for me it's a Nandos or a Chinese.
Which is your favourite dish on the menu at the moment?
Salt beef salad, because it's simple, it's the classic New York sandwich, but we've made it very British and it is just a great eat.
Where do you eat on your night off?
Nandos! I also try to get around the country to visit some of the great restaurants. I was up at Sat Bains on Tuesday, and I was at Nathan Outlaw's at the end of last year. I really like to see what's going on in British cuisine now.
What is the toughest part of running a Michelin starred kitchen?
Looking after the chefs. They can be a nightmare, it's like a kindergarten some days. You really have to look after them and massage their egos and get them through the day.
If you could choose one, which is your favourite kitchen tool or piece of equipment?
A spoon. Kitchen spoons are like gold dust, they go missing, they go home in people's pockets. We use spoons for everything from saucing and garnishing to plating veg. We can't do the job without a spoon. It is The Kitchen Tool.
What's the most versatile ingredient that you cook with?
That's a tricky one, the classic that the French would say would be an egg, but I don't know. There is so much out there to just pick one, I don't think I could do that.
Who is the most exciting person you have cooked for?
Lenny Henry, he's a legend isn't he. One of the reasons I got into cooking in the first place was Lenny Henry's 'Chef' programme. I think he spent some time in the kitchen here at L'Ortolan before filming the show. He's been in a couple of times since I've worked here. It's really good for those childhood memories and he's funny.
Did you meet him when he was here?
I have, I shook his hand, he's a big old guy. He did the imaginary walk downstairs as he walked past the fish tank, which is only funny when Lenny Henry does it! It just doesn't work when anyone else does it.
What's the best part about having a chef's table party in?
I think it's getting the team in the kitchen to share their passion for what they do. They work long hours every day, and it's great when they actually get to share with the guests the food they've put time and effort into.
Do you source produce from local suppliers?
We do to some degree. We try to source the best available produce rather than concentrating on it being locally sourced.
Who are some of the smaller suppliers that you might use?
Around here we have very good cheeses, such as the Barkham Blue from Two Hoots Cheese and Wigmore and Waterloo from Village Maid in Risely.
Do you use smaller suppliers further afield?
We use small suppliers for pretty much everything from all around the country. The more independent the supplier then it tends to be the more loved the product is. If we can only get hold of a small amount of something we can still use it as we now have a weekly changing menu, whereas before we couldn't use it.
What's it like working with Alan Murchison?
Working for Al is great, he thinks at a thousand miles an hour, he'll throw an idea at me one day, and it's my job to get that idea into a working dish. He trusts me so I have quite a bit of freedom to run the kitchen which is great.
What are your top tips for an aspiring chef?
Work really hard, don't be late, and you've got to love the job and be willing to put many years in at top kitchens, rather than taking the easy route for the money. Just work hard.
What are your favourite cookbooks that you have learned from and would recommend every home cook own and why?
Alan's 'Food for Thought'. There are some really great cookbooks out there and there are many that I go back to time and time again. The Culinary Institute of America have a cookbook called 'Frozen Desserts', it is very inspirational. I'm buying books all the time; I spend more money on books than I do drinking, well it's 50/50! 'Eleven Madison Park' just came out, and Sat Bains' new book, both are absolutely amazing. There are just so many great books out there at the moment.
Do you have a book in the pipe line for one day?
It would be nice; I think I've got a long way to go before I get to that stage.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
As much as I enjoy running L'Ortolan for Alan now, I would like to be running somewhere for me, not necessarily owning, I think that's a little risky in this climate, but a kitchen that is 100% mine.